TAMPA, Fla. — Mary Jo Walsh leads the Mountaineer's School of Autism in West Palm Beach. But last week, Walsh found herself leading the charge to get the state to pay the school voucher money her small campus depends on to keep the lights on and the doors open.
Walsh and dozens of other owners of private schools for students with special needs recently told us how the contractor hired by Florida's Department of Education to distribute the state’s record-breaking school voucher funding had yet to disperse any of the voucher cash.
Step Up for Students is the contractor hired to distribute the majority of the estimated $4 billion in state voucher money.
After sharing their story with us, Walsh said Monday morning that she and other private school owners woke up with some of that state money deposited into their accounts.
West Palm Beach autism school says state hasn't reimbursed scholarship funds
“All of the schools should be receiving their full amount of the first quarter disbursement by Sept. 29, and I attribute that to the positive dialogue that we had and the hard work that Step Up for Students is doing to rectify the situation. We're very happy about that," Walsh said Monday, singing a much happier tune than last week.
Walsh and several other providers met with the leadership at Step Up for Students late Friday afternoon to explain how the lack of funding deposited into their accounts on time was causing several financial hardships.
Providers depend on that money to cover operating costs, including rent and payroll. The money was supposed to be deposited at the beginning of the month. However, since that hadn't happened, several owners had to dip into their personal savings accounts or get high-interest loans to cover those costs until the state money arrives.
Walsh said leaders from Step Up explained several reasons for the delays, including technology issues, paperwork problems, and record enrollment.
Florida recently expanded its school voucher program to allow any student in the state, regardless of income, to apply for these vouchers. The vouchers help pay for private school tuition.
So far this year, more than 400,000 scholarships have been awarded through the program, making Florida's voucher program the largest nationwide.